On a cold, windy Sunday afternoon in September this year, the ground floor lobby of Union South was filled with students discussing homework and munching pizza. However just two floors above, a dance group in the Northwoods room was getting their groove on. As the minutes ticked by, a crew member yelled, “Only five minutes to go, guys. Let’s shoot the final sequence.” A single take, and it was over!
As dancers trooped out, lead dancer and biochemistry graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ambalika Khadria heaved a sigh of relief. She had just finished shooting what has now become UW-Madison’s maiden entry into the international “Dance Your PhD” competition—a unique contest sponsored by Science magazine in which graduate students use interpretative dance to explain their PhD research topics.
Participants are required to upload a video of their dance accompanied with a written explanation for the viewers. The jury judging these videos consists of professors specializing in fields ranging from sociology and psychology to molecular biology and string theory. This year, one overall winner, and category winners from social sciences, physics, chemistry and biology will be chosen. Khadria’s choreography based on her PhD research topic: “Biophysical characterization of transmembrane peptides using fluorescence” has made it to the final round of selection in chemistry. 31 entries were narrowed to just 12 finalists.
As part of her graduate research in the laboratory of Alessandro Senes in biochemistry, Khadria studies peptides that are essential for bacteria to multiply. She uses research tools based on a phenomenon called fluorescence to figure out how such peptides communicate with each other. This communication is crucial for the proper growth and sustenance of bacteria.
“We encounter bacteria in air, water, food... you name it!” Khadria said. “Understanding how bacterial cells proliferate is important, especially with the emergence of multidrug resistant bacteria.”
Outside the laboratory, Khadria pursues her other life-long passion: dance. A self-taught dancer and choreographer, Khadria incorporates elements of various eastern and western dance forms to produce contemporary, thematic pieces.
On being asked how she got into this competition, Khadria said, “I got to know about this competition from a news article that was published in an Indian newspaper. It stayed in the back of my mind for almost a month before I first considered it seriously. I didn’t have much time in hand, so I sketched out the rough sequence of the dance on paper, planned the moves, recorded tutorial videos and sent it out to my fellow dancers so they could rehearse individually. Thankfully, everyone did their homework well, and we finished shooting the video over a weekend. The editing took some time, but everything fell into place and here we are, in the finals!”
Khadria’s dance video illustrates an experiment protocol she has developed in her laboratory. The dancers represent peptide molecules being synthesized, purified and labeled with fluorescent dyes. They duct-taped helical patterns on their clothes to indicate the shape of the peptides and used a row of chairs as proxy for the chromatography column on which peptide molecules are purified. The dancers playing the roles of fluorescently labeled peptides wore colored masks. Floor easels were arranged in an arc to mimic the bacterial membrane, where these peptides naturally reside.
The video also communicates a recent finding that Khadria and Senes made. They found evidence proving two peptides (called FtsB and FtsL), which are important for bacterial cell division, interact with each other, as opposed to existing in isolation. This discovery was recently published in a research paper in the journal Biochemistry.
Through simple, well-thought-out formations, Khadria’s dance video illustrates the basic principles of a fluorescence experiment that led to this discovery. The elegant conceptualization, simple video editing and minimal text ensure that the focus remains on the science.
“Explaining a scientific concept through dance is an amazing idea,” said Khadria. “Visuals have a much wider audience as compared to the written word. I had thought of a science-based dance many years ago, but this competition gave me the perfect platform to choreograph on an unusual theme: my own PhD dissertation!”